Advice For the Mad and Worried

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tom Morris Bestselling Author, Speaker, Philosopher at

The number one emotion or attitude in our nation and around the world right now just might be anger. The blood pressure of humanity is through the roof.

People are angry with their leaders, at the leaders of other nations, and at the idiots in other political or religious groups. Drivers are, at nearly every moment, and on every major road, feeling anger at other drivers who seem intent on being morons. Troubled kids are ticked off with their parents, or teachers, or fellow students. People in the workplace are angry with their co-workers, or their bosses. Individuals in one ethnic group are deeply disturbed with simmering rage over a different ethnicity. Sports coaches and fans often explode with fury over a player's actions or an official's decision in a game. People stomp off enraged at a perceived insult. The U.S. Congress - like most other governing bodies around the world - is full of partisan ire. Talk radio seems to broadcast on the one frequency of "Mad." The internet is nearly melting with hostility. And so it goes.

The number two emotion or attitude here and around the globe is hardly better. It seems to be anxiety. People are worried. The uncertainty in our lives breeds constant concern and trepidation. Jobs are hard to find and aren't secure. Industries are shrinking. The entire economy appears to be more fragile than we ever imagined. In light of all this, it seems somehow appropriate that our modern English word, "business," derives from the Old English, "bisignis," which originally meant anxiety, uneasiness, and distress. Really.

There are far too many scary diseases in the world that can strike without warning. Even minor illness and simple elective procedures in a modern medical facility can result in death. Everything seems to have unanticipated side effects. Our water and food supply is full of stuff that could harm us. The environment is severely threatened. The next bridge we drive over might collapse. Earthquakes strike without warning. Terrorism looms, and every unbalanced person with a grudge wants a nuke. Violent crime is everywhere. A couple of geese can take down a commercial jet. And an asteroid out there somewhere may even have our number. It can seem that civilization hangs by a single thread and sharp objects are all around. Dread rules the world.

So anger and anxiety appear to be the two most common responses to the world in our time. And when we stop to think about this for a second, we quickly realize that these are not the two most positive psychological states imaginable. They don't exactly look like twin pillars of happiness. And they don't give us anything like a formula for positive action. Anger derails us. Anxiety can shut us down. Neither promotes the creative initiative we need to take in times of challenge.

There's an alternative approach to life that doesn't feature these enemies of inner peace and obstacles to positive action. It comes from some deep and simple ancient wisdom about our basic relationship to our circumstances.

The first century stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a lot about anger. It really riled him up. He thought of it as one of the most problematic and self-defeating inner states we can have. But, as Aristotle pointed out long before, there may be nothing inherently wrong with anger itself. It could just be a matter of our answers to some basic questions: Anger with whom, for what reason, in what measure, toward what end, and lasting how long? A flash of anger in the face of injustice can goad us into action. But anger directed toward the wrong person, or felt for the wrong reason, in an inappropriate measure, leading to the wrong actions, or nursed for too long can be badly damaging. And as a pervasive, ongoing emotional habit or settled attitude, it's horribly corrosive. It's poisonous and debilitating. And it's strangely self-defeating. The irascible person tends to be an irrational person. Hot temper isn't conducive to cool rationality. The individual in a fury doesn't often make good decisions, choices that are in his own best interest in the long run.

High anxiety doesn't typically lead to great decision making, either. The extremely nervous person is not in the best inner state for perceptive and judicious responses to the world around him. Excessive worry can block the solid clarity of mind and thoughtful perspective that's required for wise action.

The good news of practical thinkers like Seneca is that we have a pair of great alternatives to a mindset of either anger or anxiety. Whenever unexpected change happens, and it's even possible to doubt its value, we will in fact often find that anger or anxiety, or both, will naturally arise within us. But the philosophers have advised us that, if it's a situation we can't control, acceptance is better than either anger or anxiety. And if it's something we can control, action is even better. The key to inner resilience and outer results in the world is to accept what we can't control and take action on what we can control. Anything else is just spinning our wheels, and is a serious waste of time.

We sometimes can't help feeling a moment's anxiety or anger. But what do we do with these emotions? Do we fan the flames? Or do we calm down and transition to something more helpful, like acceptance or action? The great philosophers have always reminded us that we can choose a positive path over a negative one at any time. Given what's going on in the country and the world right now, I can't think of a better time for each of us to learn to make that choice.